Every day, dishonest people around the world get on the Web and post bogus listings on popular housing sites like Craigslist, Trulia and Zillow. In addition to wasting time considering these counterfeit offers, house hunters and prospective renters can lose thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars.
Even celebrities aren’t immune to being victimized. In July, Anna Wintour’s and Darren Aronofsky’s home addresses were used by a New York broker in classic bait-and-switch listings. Yes, all too often it’s not the listing for the studio apartment on the fifth floor walk-up that’s a fake. It’s the listing for the three-bedroom, two-bath that has the same price tag as the studio. To spot listings that are good to be true, look for these five signs:
- It’s Too Personal. If the listing asks you to fill out an application before you even see the property, that’s a red flag. These applications often require Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and personal contact information — things that aren’t relevant until much later in the buying or renting process. If the ratio of property information posted to personal information required seems too low, proceed with caution. A seller or landlord may ask for proof of income, but asking for anything that would allow someone to steal your identity is not only inappropriate, it’s often a sign of illegal activity. Finally, under no circumstance should you have to pay to see a property. Niccole Schreck, senior brand manager at RentPath, which owns Rent.com and ApartmentGuide.com, recommends running from listings that say the apartment isn’t available to be shown yet but can be held for viewing if you wire in a deposit.
- It’s Not Personal Enough. If you come across the phrase “out of the country” or “out of state,” be wary. One of the most common scams involves a seller or landlord who is “traveling” or “based elsewhere” and is unable to meet in person. What usually follows next is a request for a wire transfer, and then the prospective buyer or renter never hears from that person again, much less receives real keys to the place. Helene Harrison from Weichert, Realtors advises that buyers put up an even higher guard when looking at properties that are FSBO (for sale by owner). Homeowners and scammers are far less likely to be forthcoming with their names, whereas brokers and agents usually have their names and photos in listings and an online presence you can use to verify their identity. Sammy Dweck, a realtor at Evers & Co., says it’s essential to have the name and see the ID of the person who claims to own the property so you can check public records and make sure the names and addresses match.
- The Numbers Don’t Add Up. House hunting is an emotional process, but first and foremost it’s a numbers game. Unless you hire an agent or broker, it’s up to you to do your homework and know the market. Anything priced below market value should be examined very closely. But the same discretion also applies to fees. If the broker’s fee is much less than usual, or the application fee is much more than usual, you should be concerned. And make sure the house or apartment number and address actually exists. “Sometimes, to attract a new client, brokers will add a digit or two to the street number of a popular existing condo or apartment building before pulling a bait and switch,” warns Dan Willenborg, founder and CEO of Chicago startup AptAmigo. Schreck adds that tiered pricing, like an offer to save 10 percent if you pay three months in advance, also indicates a scam. The same goes for a listing where the rental rate for a furnished unit is identical to that of an unfurnished unit.
- There’s an Extreme Sense of Urgency. Last-minute house hunters are often the most frustrated and desperate — making them even more susceptible to scams. But when it comes to listings, the greater the sense of urgency, the warier you should be of the poster’s intentions. “Your internal alarm should sound when you find posts that include phrases like ‘available for this price today only!’ or ‘need cash deposit up front,’’’ says Gary Malin, president of Citi Habitats. You shouldn’t feel so rushed, especially when buying a home, that you don’t have time to do your due-diligence detective work. Redfin.com’s free online Ask an Agent feature allows consumers to connect with licensed real estate agents who will check for the ad in the local MLS (multiple listing service) and even contact the property’s listing agent to confirm that the online information is correct.
- The Photos Look Fishy. One of the easiest ways to spot a fictitious listing is to examine the photos. “Always take a close look at the floors,” says Tyler Whitman, head of sales at TripleMint — a real estate startup created to promote transparency in the industry. “The floors throughout an apartment will be consistent 95 percent of the time. So if you see floors in several different shades or patterns, it’s a dead giveaway that you’re looking at a fake.” Schreck adds that it’s a good idea to compare the watermark on the images with the website you’re on. If the two don’t match, you need to do more research, because often scammers will commandeer legitimate listings on other websites and change the pricing and contact information before reposting these less-than-kosher listings elsewhere. Another way to find out if the photos were stolen from another website is to copy the photo from the listing and plug it into a Google reverse image search, says Clair Jones, a real estate expert at Movearoo.com.
Katie Jackson is a travel writer. When she's not working, she's chasing after a Leonberger named Zeus.